More than a month ago, Josh Earp was hunting on the opening day of Georgia’s muzzleloader season in Taylor County. He spotted a buck following a doe and eventually dropped the buck. The giant 12-pointer (above) weighed 236-pounds dressed and scored 187 inches.
Why was this monster buck trailing a doe on October 15, when the peak of the rut for Georgia is in mid-November?
Bucks are ready to breed as soon as their antlers harden, but they have to wait for the does to enter estrus. Some eager bucks will check out does hoping one will be early, and sometimes they are. Throughout the fall we get reports from time to time of bucks chasing does and related rutting activity. I reported earlier that a South Carolina hunter saw five bucks chasing a doe in early October.
In Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, and parts of Louisiana, the rut peaks around mid-November. Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and some portions of Louisiana have their main rut in late December and January. Some areas of Florida have a rut as early as August and some as late as February. There can still be plenty of times before and after the peak rut where seeking, chasing, and breeding occur.
I asked Georgia Wildlife Resources Division deer biologist Charlie Killmaster about the rut seemingly being spread out. “It would not surprise me for an individual doe in Georgia to have been bred from September through February, or outside that in very rare circumstances, but the vast majority of breeding still occurs during traditional periods,” he said. “Factors that can influence this on individual properties include habitat conditions, population density, and adult sex ratio. Extremely poor habitat conditions can lead to greater variation in health of individual deer and some does may reach breeding condition sooner or later than others.
“Conversely, in exceptionally quality habitat, a much higher proportion of doe fawns will be physically able to breed their first year, but typically will not reach breeding condition until later in the season (usually observed by hunters as the second rut). Population density and sex ratio are somewhat tied together; overabundant deer populations tend to be more heavily skewed toward females. In this situation, a much lower proportion of does will be bred during their first cycle, but end up getting bred a month later.
“Many people don’t realize that, even in an area with a short, well-defined rut, breeding will typically range a month, to a month and a half from the first doe bred to the last. Only 30 or 40 percent of the does in an area will be bred at the traditional peak, the rest are spread over the weeks before and after. Now everything I just mentioned specifically refers to deer breeding, which isn’t completely concurrent with hunter’s observation of the rut. Now we introduce even more factors that can have an effect such as weather, mast crop, and inconsistencies in hunter effort from year to year.
“This year we have an extreme abundance of acorns in many places, which directly relates to decreased deer movement and subsequently decreased deer sightings, observation of rutting activity, and deer harvest. Statewide we have none of the factors that contribute to a prolonged breeding season–in fact, quite the opposite. Compared to the 1990s, we have no large-scale deer overabundance issues, the sex ratio is more balanced, and deer are much healthier. Overall, we most likely have a more defined rut than we did back then.”
The lesson for hunters: If you haven’t bagged your big buck yet and the peak rut has come and gone, you still have hope. As Killmaster points out, does can enter estrus throughout the fall, and bucks are still interested. You may not have the main chasing, but there is always a chance for some rutting activity.